Mindfulness, Psychology Methods, And Self-Help For Managing Anxiety
Updated August 30, 2019
Reviewer Dawn Brown
Nearly everyone has experienced anxiety at some time in their life. In fact, anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the U.S., with over 18 percent having it at some point each year. Fortunately, even if you do have anxiety, you don't have to keep suffering with it. You can learn to manage it through mindfulness, psychology methods, and self-help.
What Does It Mean To Manage Anxiety?
Anxiety is deeply rooted in fear. It's related to the fight-or-flight response that comes to modern humans from their evolutionary past. And, while you probably won't find yourself face-to-face with a saber-toothed tiger, there may be people, events, and places that frighten you just as much.
In most cases, though, there's nowhere to run to escape them and no way to fight them physically. Avoiding the fear imposes limitations on the way you live, so that usually isn't helpful either. Therefore, you need to find a different way to deal with anxiety symptoms like nervousness, a sense of impending doom, panic, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and weakness.
The first thing you need to know about dealing with anxiety is that you may not want to get rid of it completely. A small amount of anxiety can have a positive effect in certain situations. It impels you to take action, work harder, and keep your life moving. Although you could get rid of all anxiety with high doses of certain medications, it's unwise and unsafe in most circumstances.
When you manage anxiety well, you can use your energy to accomplish more and build the life you want to live. Anxiety management can include ways to:
- Deal with the symptoms directly
- Diminish the fear
- Set aside fears when you need to relax
- Recover from old traumas to relieve fears from the past
- Get used to situations that frighten you
- Eliminate unrealistic fears
- Stop creating or exacerbating fearful feelings
Mindfulness meditation is based on a program created by Jon Kabat Zinn. Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program started as a way to help people at a university hospital who were dealing with pain, illness, and other conditions. This program helped the patients decrease their stress, manage their pain, and reduce other symptoms. Since then, mindfulness has become increasingly popular for anyone who wants to feel more relaxed.
Mindfulness Definition, Psychology Applications
Mindfulness is a basic ability. All humans can experience mindfulness if they choose. It means being fully present in each moment. It's noticing what's happening within and around you as it's happening. Mindfulness is paying attention to the things you do, say, and express. It's observing your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. At the same time, when you're mindful, you don't get overwhelmed by your experiences. Rather than reacting strongly, you respond more reasonably and calmly.
Mindfulness practice means engaging in mindfulness routinely, every day. As you progress, you may practice it several times a day or for an extended time each day. Recent research suggests that you can train your brain and even change the physical attributes of your brain over time through mindfulness practice.
Although mindfulness is not a type of psychology, it is often used by psychologists to promote relaxation and peacefulness. If you talk to a counselor about your anxiety, they may teach you how to practice mindfulness. You may even spend some time in mindfulness at your session, but you also need to practice it at other times. As you learn, you can begin to diminish your extreme anxiety reactions.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
So, how can you "do" mindfulness? It's very easy if you follow a few basic steps and rules. Here's a simple way to start.
Choose a time and place. Think of a place where you can relax safely for a short time. You need to be comfortable so you can focus on your practice.
Notice everything that's in the present moment. Start by noticing the physical sensations that are coming in through your senses. What do you hear, see, smell, touch, taste? Then, notice the physical feelings within your body, like any pain or numbness or a growling stomach. Notice thoughts and feelings that are coming up.
Don't judge. Let all your observations pass through your mind without judging them good or bad. Notice them, but don't try to categorize them or draw any conclusions about them. Just experience them. Make a mental note of thoughts that come, but don't dwell on them.
Don't worry if your mind wanders. Although the goal is to stay in the present moment, it's natural for the mind to wander into thoughts of the past or future. It's okay. Don't stress about it. Just get back to mindfulness as gently as possible.
You can also practice moments of mindfulness throughout your day. When the phone rings or just before you rush off to work, stop, breathe, and notice the present moment first. Or, you can set a timer on your phone to remind you to pause and be mindful at a specific minute every day.
Because anxiety is a mental health problem, psychologists are trained to help with it. Some of their methods are used for a variety of mental disorders while others are used mainly for anxiety. Here are three psychology methods that are used for anxiety.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a tool therapists use in many different situations. It consists of a step-by-step process that includes:
- Noticing feelings and thoughts
- Identifying the thoughts behind the feelings
- Challenging those underlying thoughts
- Choosing whether to keep or let go of those thoughts
- Replacing unhelpful thoughts with helpful thoughts
- Changing behaviors to match new helpful thoughts
CBT is helpful for anxiety, because fears start with thoughts, especially in modern society. Objects, events, and people may seem terrifying to you even if they don't look dangerous or even present any real threat. The fear and resulting anxiety come from your thoughts about those things, not the things themselves. So, it makes sense to use CBT to change your thoughts.
As your therapist guides you through the CBT process, you'll begin to realize that you can control and choose what you think about. Then, you can learn to make better choices session by session and day by day. Eventually, the process becomes second nature, and you can do it on your own more often.
Exposure therapy is a special type of CBT that's especially helpful for people with anxiety. The idea is that when you get used to being exposed to something, you become less sensitive to it. In this technique, you come face to face with what you fear, but you do it gradually.
For instance, if you're afraid of taking the elevator, you might first go where you can see the door. The next day, you might walk up to it and push the button. On a later day, you might step in and back out. Finally, you feel comfortable enough to get on and ride it to the next floor. Step by step, you build your ability to get past the fear.
Traditionally, exposure therapy was done in person. In one instance, people who were afraid to fly got on a real airplane. Now, new avenues are opening up for this method. People can use virtual reality programs on a computer or augmented reality through an AR headset. The great thing about exposure therapy is that it expands your world rather than limiting it as anxiety does.
In acceptance-based therapy, your counselor teaches and encourages you to cope with thoughts, feelings, and sensations by accepting them as they are. They may use mindfulness, psychology techniques, or education to help you make better choices. They might also introduce fearful things in different contexts. They'll help you develop a greater commitment to making changes in your behaviors surrounding anxiety.
There are many things you can do to reduce your anxiety. Start by taking care of your physical health. Remember that when you've had the right amount of healthy food, water, exercise, and sleep, you decrease your anxiety naturally. Other things you can do are:
- Take regular vacations, even if they're staycations.
- Get into a regular daily routine as much as possible.
- Take a yoga class.
- Use a mindfulness app.
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.
- Listen to guided meditations.
Also, your therapist can teach you several psychological techniques you can use on your own to reduce your anxiety. One example is thought stopping. Sometimes fears get bigger when you dwell and ruminate on them. The thought repeats endlessly in your brain, building the anxiety with every repetition. Thought-stopping is a way of breaking out of that fearful rut.
When a thought begins to circle in your mind, picture a stop sign. Or, you can shout the word "Stop!" out loud. Every time the thought comes back, tell it to stop. If you have enough patience and keep it up, the thought should diminish or go away altogether.
If you'd like to learn this and other techniques for managing your anxiety, talk to a counselor. Therapists are available online at BetterHelp to help you deal with your anxiety wherever you are. They can teach you mindfulness, psychology methods, and how to help yourself. The first step is simply to make the decision to put your fear in its place.